LAS VEGAS —  A Las Vegas company claims it has developed a compound which holds promise for millions of people who are facing a debilitating disease — but most people will never hear of it.

The compound is made from natural ingredients so it can’t be patented. The company claims the pharmaceutical industry has used its influence with doctors to kill a possible cure for blindness.

Remember the big splash made a few years ago about the benefits of drinking red wine? Researchers found that a natural ingredient in red grapes — resveratrol — is the reason the French have a much lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. And then they found evidence that resveratrol could possibly ward off cancer. Suddenly the studies stopped and the potential fizzled. Resveratrol became just another supplement sold at health food stores.

There is now a growing body of evidence that this can also cure blindness in older Americans. So where are the clinical studies to move this forward?

“I woke up one morning and it was gone. Everything was just gone. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t see the phone in my hand down to my wrist,” said Joyce Brown.

Positive thinker Joyce Brown writes self-help books from the home she shares with her husband in Mesquite. But her optimism was tested in 2009 when a condition known as wet macular degeneration took away her eyesight.

“Without your sight, you are pretty much a prisoner. You can’t write, you can’t read. It’s very limiting for life,” she said.

She surrendered her driver’s license but hoped for a miracle. The most promising option was a series of injections directly into her eyes. She endured the needle nearly 20 times.

“It is very painful, but it’s worse to think about not having the vision. I understand that some people give up because they don’t want the shots in the eyes, so they give up.”

Macular degeneration is caused by blood pooling in the back of the eye. A gray hole forms in the center of a person’s vision. The injections helped Brown, but not for long. A friend told her about a natural product called Longevinex. She contacted the company. Owner Bill Sardi overnighted a box of the capsules.

“I took it every day for five days. In just five days, I could see. I don’t know what happened. What I do know is, I could see.”

The company is based in Las Vegas, with its production line in Los Angeles. The principal active ingredient is resveratrol, derived from plants including red grapes. Resveratrol made a huge splash in the medical world almost a decade ago, hailed first for heart benefits, then as an anti-cancer agent, but is sold mostly as an anti-aging supplement. More than 350 products, of varying quality and dosage, are now sold, but none with the quality controls of Longevinex, or the medical studies.

“It’s anti-inflammatory, it’s an anti-depressant, it’s anti-virus, anti-fungal and antibacterial in one pill. How many drugs would this molecule replace?” Bill Sardi is a vocal proponent, but under rules of the FTC and the FDA, he is restricted in making claims about any medical benefits. The same restriction applies to all vitamins and supplements.

Only prescription drugs can be sold as cures for anything.

“We can’t say that vitamin C cures scurvy. We can’t say vitamin D cures rickets. The FDA has a muzzle over what’s obvious,” he said.

The success of Longevinex in helping people like Joyce Brown came as a surprise, even to the company. Ophthalmologists started seeing miracle cures among their patients, especially those for whom the injections didn’t work. Doctors were excited about the possibilities of helping the blind and called for clinical studies.

“Then all of the sudden, mum’s the word. They wouldn’t tell our colleagues and 150,000 people who have gone irreversibly blind have no hope.”

One physician defied the unspoken shunning of Longevinex.

“We found unexpected improvement of the vision, short-term improvement that was sometimes dramatic,” said Dr. Stuart Richer who works with aging military veterans at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Chicago. Even with the tacit approval of the hospital, he can’t prescribe Longevinex but he quietly urged certain patients to obtain it on their own, especially those for whom the injections had failed, with astonishing results.

“The majority of the time, two-thirds, we see an improvement of the vision function. Sometimes we see dramatic restoration of the architecture of the retina,” he said.

Blind veterans could suddenly see again. As with Joyce Brown, they had their lives back. The number of proven successes is still small, but the potential is enormous.

“This is the leading cause of loss of vision in the U.S.  By the time you are 85, about half the population will have this disorder to one degree or another. This is the fastest growing age group in the U.S. so this is more or less an epidemic of blindness,” Dr. Richer said.

He has seen about two dozen V.A. patients with loss of vision. Of the 17 who’d tried the injections with no success, 16 saw their vision improve after taking Longevinex. Dr. Richer wrote a paper about it but no medical journal will print it. He’s calling for a full scale human study but his profession is universally silent.

Why would doctors not want to even ask about a promising cure? In modern medicine, it all boils down to money.

Tonight at 11, how big pharmaceutical hogties doctors and medical researchers and makes it more profitable to not cure diseases.